Have you ever needed to apologize to a client or customer? It’s not always easy – at least judging by some of the contortions some individuals and organizations go through to avoid saying ‘sorry’ when they are clearly in the wrong.
In a moment we’ll look at the art of the apology, with some expertise from the Harvard Business School. But first, an apology that hit the headlines in Europe a few days ago.
Passenger Gus Dolding was incensed when Norwegian Airlines wanted to charge the equivalent of $150 to change the name on a plane ticket from Bill to William. So he wrote a poem, and posted it on Facebook. Here’s part of his poem:
One hundred and twenty euros for what?
For two minutes of typing that’s rather a lot
Why can’t you be fair
Just skip that amendment fee
And just let us change it for free
The next day the airline apologized… also in verse:
We are sorry for any inconvenience that may have occurred
It can seem like our vision is sometimes blurred
And they agreed to waive the change fee.
It’s a win for everyone. The passenger is happy. And Norwegian Airlines picks up priceless free publicity for showing a human face. For a contrast, think about how badly United Airlines performed when they physically dragged a passenger off an over-booked flight. They made headlines for all the wrong reasons when they said “We apologize for having to re-accommodate these passengers” while simultaneously suggesting it was the passengers’ fault.
An article in the Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge toolkit for business leaders begins by saying: “Done right, an “I’m sorry” can enhance both reputations and relationships. Done wrong, it can compound the original mistake.”
The article talks about the three essential elements of an apology: acknowledgement of a fault or offence, regret, and acceptance of responsibility. (If you’ve read our blogs about crisis communications, you’ll know that regret, responsibility, and remedy are essential if you ever need to face the media when something has gone badly wrong).
The article offers five great dos and don’ts for offering a meaningful apology. Here are two of them:
- Don’t think in terms of an “expression of regret.” Instead, your goal should be actually communicating your regret, that is, getting it across to the other person. Take the focus off yourself and keep it on your counterpart and the three elements of an apology—acknowledgment, regret, and responsibility. That protects you from sounding defensive, and your apology will be better received.
- “I want to apologize” is not an apology. It’s no more an apology than “I want to lose weight” is a loss of weight. Do the work. Deliver a clear, direct apology; don’t hide behind vagueness, circumlocution, or clichés.
Elton John sang ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’. It doesn’t have to be.